Public Enemy: How one band changed how I listen to music

(with apologies to The Wire‘s epiphany section, from which I stole this from).

There hasn’t been a great deal of Hip-Hop featured on the (electronic) pages of 17 Seconds so far, but that shouldn’t be taken as a sign that I don’t like it. Far from it. It’s far more an indication that it’s not a genre that I feel I can write with much authority on, and there are many more out there who can do so.

However, there have been many Hip-Hop singles and albums that have done a lot for me. I was ecstatic when I eventually managed to track down a 12″ of KRS-One’s ‘Sound Of Da Police’ (might post that here soon), and albums like Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, Mos Def’s Black On Both Sides and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers have opened my ears a lot. And not forgetting Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang, RUN DMC, Missy Elliott, Kelis, Jurassic 5…

But if I had to pick one Hip-Hop album that’s had the most lasting effect on me, it has to be Public Enemy’s 1988 album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. The reasons for this are not just to do with the music and songs, which are pretty amazing, but the way the album is put together and how it sounds. I’d been aware of Public Enemy for most of my music listening life, but I first heard this album when I was twenty in 1997.

The effect on me was quite considerable. The anger was righteous and infectious, articulate and appealing. I understood, perhaps for the first time, just how effectively samples could be used (DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… had been released not long before, but I was starting to expand my palate from the almost incessant indie and britpop that had dominated it for several years at this point). lent to me by a friend at uni, it changed how I listened to music. Not just in terms of the lyrics or the melody, but about the completeness of recorded music. The track ‘Security Of the First World’ certainly sounds like it might have been sampled by Madonna on the ‘Justify My Love’ single in 1990. The beats and manipulation of sound by DJ Terminator X are still a revelation, nearly twenty years after the album was released. And it’s good to note that three of the album’s tracks were Top Forty Hits in the UK, the album made the Top 10 and was the NME writer’s album of the year. Not only an underground act, but a successful commercial act.

It was a result of listening to this album that made me appreciate other records for what they were. Working in London in the summer of 1999, I had my headphones on a lot of the time, listening, to amongst other things Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy and the Beatles’ Revolver. The latter is my favourite album of all time, but it was listening to Public Enemy that helped me to appreciate all the sonic tricks that went on, that help me to listen to it carefully, and invariably hear something new every time I listen to it, no matter how many times I’ve played it.

Public Enemy’s influence went beyond just US Hip-Hop too. In 1991, Chuck D collaborated with Anthrax for a version of ‘Bring The Noise.’ Meanwhile, in 1995, Tricky and his then collaborator Martina Topley-Bird had a hit with their cover of ‘Black Steel In the Hour Of Chaos’ released as ‘Black Steel.’ It’s a measure of the UK that these records were both Top thirty Hits, even if in an alternate world they should have been no. 1s. Ah well…

Public Enemy -She Watch Channel Zero?!’ mp3 (Via Yousendit)

Public Enemy -‘Don’t Believe the Hype.’ mp3 (via Yousendit)

Public Enemy -‘Bring the Noise.’ mp3 (via Yousendit)

And two bonus tracks…
Anthrax and Chuck D -‘Bring The Noise.’ mp3 (via YouSendit)

Tricky -‘Black Steel (Public Enemy cover).’ mp3 (via Yousendit)

Public Enemy’s offical site is here

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